Word for the year: Amplify

I know I’m a little late for the word of the year business, but I’ve been using every spare minute to launch the project I alluded to in my last post. It’s got everything to do with my word for this year:

Amplify

My word for last year was “voice”–and let me tell you, I’ve just gotta say that the previous 12 months made me a believer in the power of choosing a word. I’ll admit I was a skeptic. Choosing a word seemed like a twee, precious kinda thing for people who clearly have a sort of privilege most don’t. Maybe it is, but it made a powerful difference in my year, and I’d like to think that it made at least a small difference for some other folks, too.

Because my word was voice, I made the decision to audition for Listen to Your Mother. There, I got way out of my comfort zone, where I found wonderful new friends. I shared a piece that others told me helped them with their own struggles. I was not really pleased with my performance, but I’m pleased that I did it. And then later in the year I took a writing class from one of those new friends, and learned a new way to use my voice.

Because my word was voice, I entered into the political fray in ways I never have. It started with this post, but it didn’t end there. I began talking with others in different ways, about different things. As the year’s political events unfolded, I talked more and more. It was hard! I know some people don’t like what I’ve been saying, and for someone with decades of people-pleasing as her go-to strategy for getting along in the world, well…that doesn’t feel very comfortable. However, just as using my voice on stage brought me new relationships, using my voice in social media has done the same. I’ve found I’m connecting to some in different ways, and some in deeper ways. I may have lost some relationships, but I have more of the right ones. Using my voice more truthfully and more often has given me that.

Because I got myself more involved in political conversation and started to feel more comfortable using my voice, I made the decision to enter a program to learn how to be a leader for equity. And that has changed everything for me. My view of the world has changed. It has been hard. Really hard. Uncomfortable. Painful. I got to participate in some difficult conversations. They are on-going. I am finding myself tested to use my voice in ways I never considered using it. This is all very much a work in progress, and I know I’m in the early stages of it. Although it’s challenging and often doesn’t feel good, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. My life–and the world in which I live it–has become richer than I ever knew it could be. Voice has given me that.

Using my voice has also brought gains in my personal life. I haven’t written much about that in a long time because it was a hard, hard year. Using our voices doesn’t mean that we don’t still get to make choices about where we’ll use them or what we’ll talk about. Cane and I have been dealt some pretty crappy cards in the past 3 years, and they are hands we needed to play out mostly privately. I think the only reason we’re still in the game is that I finally learned how to speak more honestly. I learned how to express hard truths that need to be said. That people-pleasing thing is a relationship killer and all kinds of ass-backwards conditioning. You do it thinking it’s making things better, but it really isn’t. It just send problems underground, where they fester and eventually emerge in destructive ways. We’ve still got hard road to travel. We’re still living separately half the time. But it is finally feeling as if we’ve turned a corner toward some light.

But that was all last year!

I will admit that I didn’t go through the same word-choosing process this year. Because:  The end of 2016 was brutal. I got personally gobsmacked by things I didn’t know in late October, and while I was still reeling from that, November 8th ran over me like a bus. I was feeling slammed on all fronts by giant truths I’d been blind to, and I couldn’t get my bearings. For most of November and December, nothing felt solid under my feet.

In the past few weeks, though, I thought about the word thing off and on. I considered “no.” And then I considered “yes.” I considered “resist” and “resistance.” And then one day the word just came to me, and as soon as it did I knew it was the right one:  Amplify.

2016 was about finding and using my own voice, and  2017 is going to be about turning up the volume. It’s not so much about broadcasting my own voice, though, as it is about lifting up the voices of others. If you’re my Facebook friend, you know that mostly what I do there is share things I think are important for people to see. That’s one way of amplifying.

Another way of amplifying is to create a stage and invite others onto it. As I stumbled around on that shifting ground in the last months of 2016, I spent a lot of time wondering what my response to our unfolding events should be. So many things are so pressing. It’s hard to know how to best use limited time and money and energy. I watched others leaping into immediate action, and I wanted to be like that, too. I did some things, but none of them felt like the best things for me.

The day the Electoral College voted, I drove in terrible weather for more than hour, alone, to my state capital for a protest. I knew no one, and the turnout was small. I stood at the edges of the crowd, wondering what to do. People were chanting, but I’ve never been a good chanter. (It always reminds me of the Hitler rallies they showed us when I was in school.) It was really damn cold, and, honestly, it felt a bit pointless to me. My state’s electors weren’t going to be casting votes for Trump, and it occurred to me that there were probably much better ways for me to spend my energy that day. After 15 minutes, I got back in my car and drove home, thinking about what I could do.

During the drive, I felt a calm settle over me. I think I needed that day to finally accept that the unacceptable was going to happen. Our president is going to be a lying, manipulative, impulsive, self-serving, ignorant jackass who threatens things I once believed could never be destroyed, and he is supported by huge numbers of people who don’t believe and/or care about factual truth. His presidency might bring the kinds of things I once thought would exist for us only in dystopian novels. It will definitely hurt people I care about. Somehow, paradoxically, these truths allowed me to stop feeling frantic about doing something rightnowrightnowrightnow and accept that we all need to adjust ourselves for a long, most-likely painful haul. I realized that what we are facing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I started thinking about what I can maintain over the long distance of four or more years. I realized that what we all need to do is find those things that are best suited to the talents and skills and resources we have and trust that others will do the things we’re not able to do. That’s been hard for me, as mine don’t feel like the ones that might be most essential right now. I’ll be honest:  I wish I had some different ones. But we’ve all got to work with what we’ve got.

What I am is an educator, a librarian, a writer, and a reader. I’ve got time in the evenings, but not much during the work day. I thought long and hard about what it is that created change in me over the past year, what pushed me out of my comfort zone and into a place where I can more clearly see how injustice and oppression works in my country. I realized that it was story and information and discussion–things that an educator/librarian/writer/reader is pretty much wonderfully equipped to support.

And so that’s what I’m planning to do in the coming 12 months. With my daughter, I’m starting a new project, The Year of Reading Dangerously, which you can find in a different site, right here. That’s a place where weI hope to amplify the voices of the writers and readers. It won’t be as much about my voice as about the voices of everyone in the community. While it is not the only work I’ll be doing to resist the degradation of our democracy, it’s work that I know I can do. It alone can’t save the world, but it’s a pebble I can drop into the vast pond we all share, with faith that the ripples will touch others in ways I’ll likely never know about.

I really hope you’ll join me there. I’ll still be writing here, toggling back and forth between both places. I can’t not write, and I value the community here more than I can say. At the beginning of 2016, I dared the year to give me whatever it wanted, thinking it couldn’t be much worse than 2015. Honestly, it was nearly as bad. The lifting up I’ve gotten from those of you who join me here made all the difference in the world to me. Thank you for reading, writing, and slogging through the challenge of being human with me.

Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer Flickr via Compfight cc

Getting collective with it

As promised in my last post, I’m working on launching a project and I want this project to be a collective effort. I’m reaching out to ask for your support and expertise.

I’m looking for adult/young adult fiction/memoir that illuminates the experience of Americans in the following categories: immigrant, refugee, Muslim, African-American, disabled, Native American, Asian, women, LGBT. I’m interested in any group targeted in the election campaign and/or vulnerable if proposed policies are implemented.

I’m most interested in contemporary works that depict current American lives, and I’d like a range of ages for the main characters. Please share any titles you’d recommend in the comments.

Thank You!
#letsgetdangerous

Overwhelm and Antidotes

From a Facebook post that came through my feed a while back:

Syrian refugees, White Helmets, Standing Rock Sioux, DAPL, Black Lives lost, Black Lives Matter, Aggression towards Muslims, aggression towards people perceived to be Muslims, Oil Company YES Men being put in charge of our government’s environmental departments, children worrying to themselves at night that their parents will be deported, Flint Michigan is still drinking water from bottles, Oil Spill right now running into the Missouri, people feeling insecure that they will have access to healthcare in 2017……is it any wonder we are feeling overwhelmed? We are feeling torn between what front to fight on? We are feeling alone?

This is only a partial list of the things I can’t stop thinking/worrying about–and yes, I have been feeling overwhelmed and torn and alone.

I have been struggling since early November to figure out how to respond to what is happening. I have attended two protests, but I left both feeling that it wasn’t the best use of my limited resources.  I am watching very-capable others around me, and I haven’t seen any clearly important gaps I might fill better than those already filling them. I have been frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest of things; while I’ve made a few phone calls in response to calls for action, because of my work/life obligations I often can’t do that during business hours, which is when such calls are answered.

I have been stuck in a scarcity mind-set, continually exhausted from ping-ponging between worry about how to meet urgent, immediate needs (those call-to-action requests) and long-term needs (how do we shift societal thinking/understanding about race, justice, information, government, etc.?).

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing much. I spend too much time on social media, consuming information that I don’t do much with. The information is important, as is the connection with like-minded others (so we know we’re not completely alone/delusional), but the balance has felt off. I have felt off-balance.

I’m pretty sure the thing to do is get over myself.

I need to get over the idea that I can somehow, on my own, save anything. I need to get over the perfectionism that can keep me from doing anything unless I think I can do it exactly right. I need to get over figuring out the one, best right thing to do and just find good things to do, trusting that others will carry the weight of the other right things I’m not the best person for.

So, this is me getting over myself:

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times story from George Yancy, a professor who’s been placed on the Professor Watchlist, a list created by Turning Point USA to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (I refuse to link to this. You can find it easily if you want.) Yancy’s concluding paragraph felt like a rallying cry, the most compelling call to action I’ve seen:

Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.

Hell, yeah! I thought. I want to be dangerous, too.

I have been sitting with his words, letting them marinate in the stew of all I’ve experienced this year. As I’ve learned a more complete reality of my country’s history, heard and read the reality of lived experience from people of color, and seen the ugly reality of where so many of my countrymen are with respect to race and justice today, I’ve been ashamed that it has taken me so long to be truly moved.

I have been reflecting on what it is that moved me, finally, and I know that it has been a combination of information and story. Learning the systemic mechanisms of racism in our country alone didn’t move me. Hearing others’ stories in isolation from systemic analysis didn’t move me. Having both come together–so I could understand intellectually the causes of personal suffering while empathetically feeling the suffering–is what has made a difference in me. It is what has made it impossible for me to close my ears and mind and heart and retreat back into my own, private world. It is what woke me.

In the face of all this intellectual and emotional messiness, I have been floundering in the sea of all I don’t know and don’t have:

I don’t know a whole lot about how to organize. I don’t know how to make change happen politically. I don’t know how to advocate for policy.

I don’t have much in the way of resources. I’m not rich and I don’t have a lot of time. I work full-time in two under-funded public sector positions. It takes most of what I have to just take care of myself and my kids.

I don’t have a large platform from which to speak. On a good day this blog gets 150 or so views. I think more of my social media friends tolerate my utterances/shares more than look forward to them. I am not much of an influencer in the ways we typically think of that term.

But here’s what I do have:

I’m an educator. I’m a writer. I have faith (most days). I believe fiercely in the power of knowledge and story to change us. Yes, even to save us. I believe that saving happens one person, one community, one city, one state at a time. I believe in ripple effects. I would rather be read by 150 of the right people than 150,000 of the wrong ones–meaning, those whom my words will have no impact on. Those who will not take my words out into the world in some way for good.

Before the end of the year, I will post about a project I’m planning to launch–one that will make the best use of the talents and resources I have. It will be a collective project. It will involve story and education. I hope it will involve you.

Let’s get dangerous together.

 

Of pulleys and buttonholes and light

There are two more names to add to the long list of luminaries whose lights went out in 2016:  Ann Marchbank and Melba McConnaughey.

I know. Most of you don’t know either of these women, but they were famous to me in the way Naomi Shihab Nye so eloquently aspires to fame in one of my favorite poems:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

In 1979, I was a bit of a lost soul.

No, that’s not quite right. I wasn’t exactly lost. I pretty much knew where I was–walking a sketchy path that, in spite of its obvious dangers, seemed would take me to a better place than the one I’d been. Luckily for me, Mrs. Marchbank and Mrs. McConnaughey steered me off of it.

I don’t know if they knew the peril I was courting or if they ever knew they helped save me. I suspect they didn’t. I suspect they were just doing their jobs, teaching me and bringing opportunities my way, the way teachers do. I suspect they didn’t know that my dad was an active alcoholic, or that I was far too aware of what shaky ground my parents’ marriage was listing on, or that my whole family was struggling hard to care for my severely autistic brother who hadn’t even received an accurate diagnosis, much less anything that could be called adequate support. I am sure Mrs. Marchbank, my 9th grade English teacher, didn’t know that I sometimes drank in the girls’ bathroom before school (because school was “so boring”). I’m equally sure that Mrs. McConnaughey didn’t know I struggled with depression throughout high school, flirting often with what we now call suicidal ideation. I’m guessing they didn’t know how much I battled every single day with fear and loneliness and self-loathing, or what a difference it made that they helped me see myself as a person who had value and potential.

Mrs. Marchbank was the matchmaker who hooked me up with Shakespeare and grammar and poetry, kindling life-long love affairs with each. She championed my work, entering it in contests and telling me she was sure that one day she’d walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on the cover. When a poem of mine was published in a national magazine, she whooped with excitement and joy–and she was not, generally speaking, a whooper. It was how I knew it was a big deal. She gently teased my friends and me about our obsessive need to check our appearance in mirrors, letting us know that there were more important things for us to care about. As I left the halls of Sylvester Junior High, she handed me over to Mrs. McConnaughey at the high school. During spring forecasting, she told me I needed to take Mrs. McConnaughey’s classes because “she’s the head of the English department, and I want her to know you.”

Mrs. McConnaughey, who died on December 16, was a force. She’d long left her native Arkansas for the northwest, but she never lost her accent. She was both genteel and formidable in the way I’ve come to know that Southern women can be. My first real memory of her is from the day after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. She was furious that the election was called before polls had closed on the west coast, and she was furious that he’d won. I was pretty sure she shouldn’t be sharing so much of her own political beliefs in class like that, but I became curious about why she would, and from that curiosity grew my own political awareness and philosophy. Later that year, I took a class from her called “Semantics and Logic,” which had a Matrix-like impact on me: she revealed the codes of language and argument, giving me personal and political power I hadn’t even known existed. It had everything to do with why I later became an English teacher myself.

Being human, Mrs. McConnaughey was not a perfect teacher. A friend once told me that I was the only one she allowed to really challenge her ideas in class. Others teased me about being her pet, and I know she gave me special favors. Our high school had what they called tennis shoe registration for classes, where we’d walk around the gym and pick up registration cards for the classes we wanted. If all the cards were taken for a class before we got to it, we were out of luck. As a sophomore trying to get into an English class for seniors, chances are I wasn’t going to get the card I wanted. I will never forget coming to the front of the line and watching Mrs. McConnaughey pull out a registration card for me that she’d hidden behind a curtain, or the “hey!” of injustice that exploded from the kid standing behind me in line as he realized what she’d done.

As an educator myself, I know that wasn’t fair. But I also know that sometimes, some kids really need us to show them that we think they matter. I was one of those kids, and she did that for me. When I was a senior, she spent her lunch period every day shepherding me through an independent study of poetry. “I am so sorry we do not have anything in our curriculum to teach you what you need to know about poetry,” she said, “and you just can’t go off to college without knowing more about it.” It was clear that the independent study wasn’t an option, but a requirement. I would sit in the class she had before lunch, reading and writing on my own while she taught the rest of the students, and then during her lunch she would talk with me about the poems I’d read. Like Mrs. Marchbank, she entered my writing in contests and expressed unwavering belief in the importance of my work and my ability to do it.

It is because of both women that I became a high school teacher myself. Although I entertained the idea of teaching in higher ed, I knew that where teachers had mattered most for me was long before college. If it weren’t for those two, I might never have made it there. A 9th grade girl who was drinking in the bathroom before school and throwing herself into one ill-advised infatuation after another needed champions to show her that she had value that wasn’t to be found in a bottle or a boy. She needed people to love her, and they were those people for me.

I’ve been out of the classroom for 8 years now, coaching teachers rather than working directly with students. I wish that during my years there, I’d better understood what I know now–that a teacher’s most important contribution isn’t necessarily what they are teaching students about a subject, but what they are teaching students about themselves. I would have worried less about the finer points of my lessons and more about the rough and tender edges of my students.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to be willing to take some risks, to be OK with small failures that might be a necessary part of the process of learning how to create classrooms that are more relevant, rigorous, and safe for all students.

“We aren’t brain surgeons,” I tell them. “No one’s going to die if we mess up a lesson.”

It’s true. No one’s doing to die if we mess up a lesson. But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t have the power to save lives.On the dark and deeply troubling path we’re walking now, that’s something I hope all the teachers I know will remember. I hope that all of us who work with and for youth, in schools or out, will be famous in the ways of pulleys and buttonholes, never forgetting what it is we can do.

I am so thankful for these two teachers who never did.

You can’t go home again

img_20161127_143425

Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.

img_20161125_162926

I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.

img_20161127_124934-1

Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.

georgetown-collage

Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.

img_20161124_204118

 

The beat goes on…

30146712592_0573a4fd8c

If I were to evaluate my high school journalism teacher, Miss S., through the  current thinking about what makes a teacher good, she’d get a pretty low grade.

Sometimes, she’d teach what looked like a lesson, sort of. I do remember her standing at the front of the room occasionally, sharing information about journalistic principles or practices for a few minutes. There were no learning targets on the board, no rubrics, no scoring guides, no real assignments other than the ones we were given to produce our student newspaper.

The teacher who chaired the English department told me that the journalism class wasn’t a good use of my time. When I shared that with Miss S., she laughed, and I understood that they didn’t like each other and that my presence in her class gave her a battle win in some kind of teacher war. It was the first time I understood that there were such things.

She was volatile and erratic. Once, in a fit of anger with one of us, she yelled and kicked a wastebasket across the room. I remember that, and the way we all went silent, afraid of what she might do next. We whispered among ourselves about what might be wrong with her. Someone once snooped in her closet and found an empty pint bottle. We wondered if she drank at school.

And yet, we produced an award-winning newspaper. Under her direction, our scope extended beyond the walls of our high school. She drove some of us to the state capitol so we could interview law-makers for a story about the impact of state budgets on our education. We wrote a story about the Green River Killer, who targeted young women in our area. We took national stories and examined what they meant for us locally.

Somewhere along the way, between flying trash cans and trips to the capitol, I learned the fundamentals of journalism that guide me as a consumer of information today:

  • You need to present all sides of a story.
  • You need credible sources of information.
  • There is a hard and clear line between fact and opinion.
  • You need to dig beyond the surface of a story to what lies beneath it.
  • Good journalists ask hard questions and tell hard truths, even when others don’t want them to.

One of my award-winning stories was about the dangers of “look alike” amphetamines, which students across the country were buying and selling. It included photos of such pills taken in our newsroom, as well as quotations from anonymous students who were dealing them in our classrooms. My principal did not appreciate the story. He wanted the names of my sources, the students who told me how they were doing business during class. For a people-pleaser like me, this was kinda scary stuff–but I was never really scared because I knew that Miss S. had my back. I also had the strength of convictions she’d instilled in me about the necessity of a free press and the duty journalists have to tell the truth and protect their sources. I wasn’t privy to the adult conversations that took place and don’t know what kind of heat she took from her boss, but I never did have to reveal mine.

When I went to a large state university and was looking for places that could make campus feel smaller, I sought out the newspaper staff. The first thing I saw when I walked through the newsroom door was a graffitied wall with “Fuck Objective Journalism” scrawled across it in huge letters. I was offended not by the language, but by the sentiment. Objectivity was a bedrock principle for me. I left and didn’t return for a few months.

Eventually I did, and I took the beat covering our crew team. I was not a sports writer, but it was a way in. I worked my way up to writing in-depth feature stories, and despite my colleagues’ irreverence (or perhaps because of it), I never abandoned the principles formed during my time with Miss S. Like so many experiences in young adulthood, though, it was one that showed me what I wasn’t cut out for. I hated calling people I didn’t know on the phone. I hated making people uncomfortable with hard questions. I hated writing under the pressure of a deadline and not having enough time to polish my writing or my thinking. Eventually I ended up working in education, not journalism.

As I’ve watched the demise of print journalism over the past decade, I’ve been thankful many times that I didn’t pursue a career in it. If I had, I may well have been objectively fucked, a victim of mass layoffs at a point where I’d be too old to easily switch careers but not old enough to retire. There are always casualties when industries and economies change, aren’t there?

But what’s happened in journalism isn’t the same as, say, what’s happened to the coal industry. Coal is, as one might say, a “disaster” for the environment. I truly do feel for those who are suffering because the backbone of their economy has snapped–especially those who, like me, are at exactly the wrong stage of life to be able to recover from such a catastrophic injury. But I also know that alternate sources of energy are what we need to survive as a species. I wish we could find ways to support those people without bringing back that industry.

Journalism is different, though. We need journalists–real ones, who investigate corruption and share truth and ask hard questions we all need the answers to–like we’ve always needed them. We need them perhaps now more than we’ve ever needed them. That’s something Miss S. taught me.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, not the least of which is that in spite of the economic challenges facing those who produce print journalism, we still have newspapers that adhere to the principles I learned decades ago. I’m thankful that in spite of all that is currently troubling and uncertain in our President-elect’s relationship with the press,  we still have a free one. I worry about the fact that so many of our youth cannot tell the difference between valid and bogus news. I worry about the proliferation of fake and clearly biased “news,” which may very well have influenced the outcome of our recent presidential election. I worry about lowlife scum who care more about the personal profit they make from creating and disseminating misinformation than the damage they do to all of us through their actions. But I take hope from journalists who are the ones who really tell it it like it is, and those who vow to keep doing so in this strange new world we seem to be living in.

I’m thankful, too, for the public education I received that’s helping me navigate it. A high school acquaintance of my daughter’s recently shared that he distrusted a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist’s article in The Wall Street Journal because she “went the school route.” I wish so much–for himself and for all of us–that in his education he’d encountered a journalism teacher like Miss. S. and wonder how things might be different for him if he had. Like pretty much all of us, Miss S. was flawed, a human mix of strengths and weaknesses. I think of her often these days as I reflect upon what went wrong in our election, one of the first people from whom I learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be (and do) good.

(If you’d like to contribute to the continued existence of publications that provide accurate information about matters of crucial importance to us all, please check out the links on the Resources page.)

Photo Credit: Christof Timmermann Flickr via Compfight cc

Grief is a luxury we can’t afford right now

27000410986_1d36afabf5

I get it. So many of us who wanted things to go a different way on November 8th are grieving right now.

Some of us are in denial. We want to believe that what happened was just politics, business as usual. We tell ourselves, OK, so our guy didn’t win. Let’s trust the system and wish him the best and wait and see what happensLet’s take a break from political news and figure out how to reconnect with the other side. Let’s trust the checks and balances of our system to do its job. We tell ourselves that practicing self-care will make us feel better. We dismiss those who are worried our democracy may not survive intact for four years because of course it will! It can’t not survive. (Yeah, just like Trump could never get elected.)

Some of us are bargaining. We think that maybe, somehow, if we just try to understand why all those people in middle American voted for Trump, we can broker our way to some better place. We think that if we develop empathy for those on the other side and reach out to connect with them, we can find our way back to one another and we’ll move forward together toward a peaceful, accepting, diverse culture. We’re hoping that if we do those things, Trump won’t make good on all those election promises he made.

Some of us are just flat-out angry.

(Righteous anger hurts so good, doesn’t it?)

Some of us are depressed. We can’t seem to move on. We feel powerless. We can’t concentrate or get anything productive done. We’re pretty sure it’s all in our head, and some others would agree. Our days have looked kinda like this:

15094376_10154680721093427_2790226819516827090_n

Well, if you’ve been bouncing around in these various circles of grief hell over the past two weeks, I’ve got a suggestion:

let’s get  ourselves to acceptance as soon as we can, because shit’s getting real, and it’s getting there real fast.

On November 9, I wanted to go along with the folks urging us to wait and see. But when Trump brought in Steve Bannon as a White House advisor, it became clear that we weren’t going to have to wait long. Just in case you aren’t fully up to speed on what the “alt right” (a Newspeak term for white supremacists) is, please listen to this interview with Richard Spencer, who coined the term. (Actually, please listen to it anyway. Even if you think you know what it is, listening to this guy will make your skin crawl. Unless, of course, you think skin color is an OK criteria for determining, well, just about everything.) And if you can stand it after that, go check out Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general.

I, too, in an effort to understand what the hell happened and how to fix it, went looking  for explanations and solutions. I wondered about my bubble. Then I realized that even if I (and so many of us liberal white people) have been in a bubble, we aren’t the only ones. Those struggling midwest white folks are likely in a bubble, too. I wanted to believe that if we all seek empathy and start having hard conversations about race, we’ll get everyone moving in the direction of social justice and we’ll work to dismantle our systemic racism.

I don’t disbelieve that, but it’s clear we don’t have time to wait for that kind of change. And if the person we’re trying to move is a narcissist (like, you know, our President-elect), best just to move on.

So:  Let’s get to acceptance. 

Let’s accept what is and figure out what we’re going to do about it. Let’s stop focusing on who voted for whom and why. While there are plenty of reasons for folks to be angry with those who voted for Trump–and implications about what it means that a majority of white men and women voted for Trump should be wrestled with–the election ship has sailed. It’s over.

30750386381_e6b07f883e

Let’s focus on how we’re going to get on board the next one. I’m still really pissed about lots of the reasons people voted for Trump, but like this guy, I care more about what people are going to do now.

And like this guy, I am absolutely on Team Nah. Since election day, Trump has shown us exactly who he is (the same guy he was in the campaign), and as the article linked to above explains, when we’re dealing with narcissists there is no appealing to reason or a sense of what’s right.

Rather than waiting and hoping we can reason Trump and his administration onto some higher road, let’s get to work doing whatever we can to demand that all citizens are treated fairly and that our rules and best practices for governing be followed. And let’s obstruct any attempts by anyone in our government to do otherwise.

Because honestly, what else can we do? I suppose we can keep on denying and bargaining and turning away from the overwhelm of what’s happening, but lots of people don’t have the luxury of that any more than they have the luxury of prolonged grieving. I don’t want to roll over because what this requires of us is hard and feels maybe futile. I’m more realist than idealist; I know I might end up on the losing side of history, but I want to know I went down fighting on the right side of it.

So:  Let’s get our boots on the ground.

(If you want some concrete ideas of things to do, check out the Resources page.)

Did some walking this weekend in Portland.

Literally got our boots on the ground in Portland this weekend.

Statue Photo Credit: Aramisse Flickr via Compfight cc
Boat Photo Credit: serbosca Flickr via Compfight cc

Boots on the ground

1971-crinkle-patent-stretch-vinyl-granny-boots-01

In first grade, I coveted Heidi Bernasek’s boots. Shiny, crinkly, white patent leather, lace-up knee boots. I remember seeing them as we lined up on the playground, waiting to be ushered into school. We all knew what go-go boots were, but I’d never seen anything like them on anyone I knew, much less someone my own age.

Like me, Heidi was blonde, but she was tall and beautiful in some way that I was not. In our class picture, she is standing in the back row, beaming. I am in the front, scowling. She would go on to be a Las Vegas showgirl, while I would go on to be a librarian. After sharing my admiration of her boots with my mother, I ended up with my own pair, eventually, but they were not white. They were black, and although I was grateful to have them I knew they were lesser than Heidi’s. I didn’t wear them much, probably not because they were lesser, but because they just weren’t me.

I was more of a sneaker girl.

*****

For a brief time in college, I lived in a sorority. It was a “good” house, meaning that most of its members were pretty and rich and smart and accomplished, and I was accepted into it only because a good friend from high school was already a member. I was smart and attractive enough, but I was neither rich nor particularly accomplished.

I fell in love with a boy who lived in the fraternity across the street. He was not really a frat boy, any more than I was really a sorority girl. I suspect that was a large part of our bond. Late in the fall of our first year together, Seattle was slammed by the kind of snowfall we get only occasionally in the northwest. Having no snow boots, I slipped around in my regular shoes, feet wet and freezing, and coveted the kind of footware I saw on the feet of my sisters.

Finally, I broke down and headed to the Nordstrom store on University Avenue with a newly acquired credit card to buy a pair of boots I couldn’t pay cash for. The relief I felt, slipping my feet into those fleece-lined boots!  I didn’t share with anyone except my boyfriend what they meant to me and how I felt about not being able to simply purchase this near-necessity that everyone else I lived with seemed to take for granted.

Six years later, when that boyfriend and I were divorcing, those boots were long gone. What wasn’t gone was the debt on that credit card, which we’d used to purchase a bookcase, too many pizzas, a sofa, a dog. I didn’t really understand then how you end up paying much more than an item is worth when you make only the minimum payment each month. I hate to think how much I really paid for those boots–and everything else I bought with credit that I couldn’t actually afford.

*****

When my daughter was a freshman in high school, she wanted a pair of Doc Marten’s boots. When I found a great pair at a thrift store that December, I bought them for a Christmas present.

She loved them but rarely wore them. “I just don’t think I can pull them off,” she’d say when I’d suggest them for some outfit. I sensed that the boots were aspirational, about something she wanted to be more than something she was. “I think I’ll wear them more in college,” she’d say.

I ended up wearing them more than she did. I liked that they were a little bit sassy, especially for someone like me–a middle-aged, suburban mom. I’d wear them and feel like maybe I wasn’t the stale white-bread person I suspected I’d become. Still, even I have hardly worn them for the past year.

When my daughter left for college last August, she didn’t take the boots with her.

img_20161112_113214

*****

Last summer, my friend Lisa and I made plans to attend an event headlined by a famous blogger/social activist whose work I admire. She would be joined by a small but diverse group of women, and their message would be about transforming the world through love. Lisa and I were down with that, so we bought tickets and put it on our calendars.

By the time we met in mid-September for the event, I wasn’t as excited about it as I’d been in July. I was feeling uneasy about the presidential election and what it was revealing about us. I had recently come off an intensive, two-week training on leading for equity, and my thoughts and ideas about how I need to show up in the world were changing.

Dressing for the evening, I selected my black heeled ankle boots. Not because they meant anything or had anything to do with my election anxieties, but because they looked good with my outfit. Before the show Lisa and I tried to catch a bite to eat at a happy hour across from the theater, but it was packed with women who all looked a lot like us. White. Middle-class. Middle-aged. Women who had taken care with their appearance and could afford both tickets to such an event and wine and appetizers at an upscale restaurant beforehand. The bar was so packed we couldn’t get in, so we ate at an inexpensive Chinese place a few blocks away. It wasn’t packed, and no one in there looked like us.

Lisa and I found our seats in the filled auditorium just before the event began.  As the speakers talked about the power of love to fight hate, I could feel something in my core saying, “yes, but…” The presentation was too slick, and I was reminded that the whole show was supposed to be in lieu of the blogger’s book launch.

When they had us all fill out a canned template to help us write a personal mission statement that would tap into our best talents and desires, my “yes, but” shifted into “Really?” When the first speaker shared a moving personal story about reconciliation with the man who killed her uncle in a post-9/11 hate crime, I found myself thinking, “Yes, OK, of course good–but it just doesn’t seem like enough.” When, right before intermission, recognition of a woman for her volunteer work was a thinly disguised commercial for an insurance company, Lisa and I were done.

We went back across the street to the now-nearly-empty restaurant bar and ordered whiskey. We dissected why none of it felt right to us.

“I just don’t see that making a personal mission statement is really going to do anything that matters,” I said. “I think we are in a time that calls for more than simply loving each other and doing good works. This feels like some thing that all of us privileged, liberal white women in Portland can attend and feel good about and feel like we’re actually doing something to make a difference–but we’re not.”

On my way back to the car, I turned my ankle and stumbled, the way I almost always do when I’m wearing those boots with a heel.

img_20161112_113536

*****

Last Wednesday, the day after the election, I stood in front of my closet, wondering what to wear. What would be fitting, on a day such as this? I thought of the students in the school where I work, many of them living in poverty. About half are white, and about half are people of color. We have students who are Muslim, students who are immigrants, students who are refugees. What did I want to communicate to all of them?

I reached for my black jeans, a black shirt, a black sweater. I did  not want to make a difficult situation harder, but I also did not want to communicate that the day was business as usual by dressing as if it were. I wanted to wear something that would broadcast my alliances. Something that would say that I am in mourning over what my country has come to, something that would demonstrate the grief I feel about the price so many of my countrymen are willing to pay to get what they feel they need.

At the bottom of the closet I saw my daughter’s Doc Martens. I wondered, again, how she was doing, 3,000 miles away from me, in Washington, DC. I thought about how we’d hoped we might attend, together, the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States. I thought about her and about the young women who are her friends, so many of whom live in the intersection of race and gender and have so much more to lose than she and I do. I thought about what it will mean to her and to them, that our country elected a man who bragged about his ability to grab women by the pussy because of his power and position.

As I reached for my daughter’s boots, which suddenly seemed the only right choice for the day, the music that always plays in my head switched to Nancy Sinatra.

Nancy of the white go-go boots. Nancy of the song that says, I am not going to take it any more. The song that says, one of these days I’m gonna walk all over you.

nancy-sinatra-these-boots-a

*****

Before the election, I went boot shopping. I had a pair of brown ankle boots, but they weren’t made out of leather and they were cracking and falling apart.

The boots I fell immediately in love with were expensive. They cost more than any pair of shoes I’ve ever bought.

“Those are Wolverine 1,000 Mile boots,” the salesperson told me, assuming I would know the significance of the brand. “They’ll last the rest of your life if you care for them properly,” she added.

“Rest of your life” has a different meaning to me today than it did when I coveted my first pair of boots back in first grade. I thought of all the things I’ve wanted and bought and discarded in my life.

“I wonder if I’ll like them that long,” I said. I’ve already traveled more years than I likely have left to go, but there could still be a fair number to walk through.

“Well, they aren’t necessarily stylish,” she admitted. “They are classic, though. They are almost beyond style, and good for someone who isn’t about trends,” she said, looking at me. I could see her wondering a bit uneasily if I was offended at her implication that I am without style. I wasn’t. They are the kind of boots a sneaker girl would wear.

“They are made in the US,” she added. “It’s hard to find that today.”

Yes, it is. And yes, that’s part of why they are so expensive. It’s part of why, a week later, after thinking about how I want to spend my money, I went back and bought the boots, the only pair of footware I’ll buy this season.

We have to put our money where our mouths are, I thought, handing over my debit (not credit) card. I’d rather buy one good pair of boots that will last years than keep buying cheap, imported crap that hurts our environment and our economy. It costs more upfront, but not in the long run.

I was acutely aware that not everyone has the means to make such a choice.

img_20161112_113443

*****

In the days since the election, I–like so many of us–have been thinking long and hard about what its result means, where we are and what is really happening. I have been thinking about boots and what they’re used for, and our economy, and cultural war, and who is walking over whom and how they’re doing it.

The Nancy Sinatra song playing on repeat in my head saddens and angers and embarrasses me, much as my country does right now. I’ve watched the video of her and her back-up dancers prancing around in spiky-heeled boots and short skirts and know that men in the ’60s must have seen her song as a joke, not as any statement of strength. She’s still playing their game, even as she appears to be denouncing it, which is evident in the trump card she plays in the final verse: she’s found another man who is her “new box of matches.”

Still, I can’t help wanting to reclaim the first few verses of her song and turn it into some anthem for our country:

You keep lying when you oughta be truthin’
And you keep losin’ when you oughta not bet
You keep samin’ when you oughta be a-changin’
Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet

For how many of us have the systems of our country been treating us in the same way cheating men treat their women?  And for how long? What compromises and bargains have we made to stay in the relationship, hoping it will get better, that we’ll eventually get the kind of love we’ve been promised?

War these days–the way many of us think of it in the US–is not war the way it was when last fought on our soil, in the Civil War. It’s not horses and muskets. It’s drones. It’s bombs we drop from above. It’s troops whose members belong to only a small number of our families. It’s something that happens somewhere else, and many of us are OK with the idea of fighting our enemies as long as we don’t have to put boots on the ground.

Maybe war is actually closer than we think, and we just don’t recognize it because it (like so many things these days) is changing so rapidly we don’t see it for what it is. If war has changed–if we are fighting each other in not just a cultural war, but also the kind of conflict that every war is over–resources and who will control them–and the rules of engagement are changing from what they’ve always been, then I have been complacent and complicit. It is I who have been samin’ when I need to be a-changin’.

I have been flying over head, removed from the real action, thinking that it was enough just to do good work in the public sector and be a responsible consumer and love others who cross my path. Thinking that it was somehow enough to engage in conversation on social media and drop my link bombs and vote my conscience.

It has become clear to me that what is required now is something different.

I need to get my boots on the ground.

img_20161112_113354

Go-go boots image via retrowaste.com
Lyrics: Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking Lyrics | MetroLyrics

 

Ode to Mr. Elwell

scan0078

Doing algebra homework, circa 1978.

I’ve always been pretty sure that I was the last kid they let into the advanced math track. At the end of 7th grade, we took a test to see whether we’d be going into Algebra or some other kind of not-ready-for-algebra math. I don’t know what that was, but my ensuing struggle with math that was more about letters than numbers made it clear to me that I must have been the cut-off kid on the Algebra list, the last one that got into the advanced party.

I have few memories of that math class. I know I had Mr. Elwell, a kind, quiet man with the kind of dark, bushy mustache that lots of men had back in the late 70s. (The kind my second ex-husband, who probably came of facial-hair age at about the same time as Mr. Elwell, still has, although his is now white.) Despite learning very little algebra from him–and learning was generally a huge part of the criteria when determining whether or not I liked a teacher–I liked Mr. Elwell.

I had him not only for Algebra, but also for Driver’s Ed the fall of my sophomore year. That was the year our junior high was transformed into a middle school, and the 9th graders who should’ve been top dog at Sylvester Junior High were instead lowly freshmen when we all migrated to high school together. A handful of teachers came, too, one of whom was Mr. Elwell.

I’m sure one of the things I liked about Mr. Elwell was that it was impossible to rattle him, which made him different from so many of the men I’d known, starting with my dad. Any other teacher probably would have had some misgivings about my driving group the first day we all climbed into the Driver’s Ed car with him. There was Dorrit Norvell, who, I guessed from her skill, confidence, and obvious boredom, might have been driving since about the 3rd grade. She had eyes sharp as her Pat Benatar-esque attitude, and she made it clear that she did not suffer fools gladly. She scared the shit out of me because, when it came to driving, I was everybody’s fool. Unlike most parents, mine did not do one thing to prepare me for Driver’s Ed before it began. No practice drives, no sitting in the car introducing me to the controls, no nothing. I was a driving virgin that first day in the parking lot, and next to Dorrit, with moves as smoothly polished as her nails, it showed. The only saving grace for me was that the third person in our car was Cam Tu Nguyen. She was no fool–but she was a worse driver than me. Our first day Cam Tu tore up the parking lot at about 5 mph, and I thought Dorrit was going to get whiplash from the way her head snapped every time Cam Tu slammed on the brakes, but Mr. Elwell’s calm never faltered.

Eventually we all made it out onto the streets, even Cam Tu. Although I got better at it, driving was not something that came easily or intuitively to me–kind of like algebra, which is maybe why Mr. Elwell was kind to me, the way we are kind to those who are a little slow or a little fragile. Although I was considered to be a smart kid, driving challenged me. The only test I ever failed was the written driving test. I remember coming out of the DMV office and telling my mom I didn’t pass.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know…” my voice trailed off. “I think I got confused because of the colors of the cars,” I said.

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Well, it seemed like the colors of the cars in the drawings had something to do with the colors of the stoplights in the scenario questions. I was sure it did on this one question, and I got the right answer, but then it didn’t on some others…”

What are you talking about?” she asked, not even attempting to sound sympathetic or like I was making any kind of sense.

“Well, like, if the car approaching the intersection was red, I thought that had something to do with the color of the light, and so if the car was yellow or green…but it didn’t work if the car was blue…” My voice trailed off for a third time. It had made so much sense when I was taking the test. But trying to explain it to my mom, I could hear that it made none.

Later, I would attribute some of my failure on that test to being upset over my break-up the night before with David Ravander, my senior boyfriend who treated me so poorly I finally felt forced to end things between us. That morning of the failed test I couldn’t connect the dots between my broken heart and my foggy, over-thinking brain, but later I saw the lines linking one to the other.

None of my test failure was Mr. Elwell’s fault. He had been a bastion of calm support in that Driver Ed car with Scary Dorrit and Whiplash Cam Tu. Driver Ed cars came equipped with a brake on the passenger side, so that the teacher could, if necessary, save us all in any kind of near-death situation, but I never saw him use it. He didn’t even do it the time I came to a red light, carefully looked both ways to make sure the intersection was clear, and proceeded to turn left.

It wasn’t until after I had completed the maneuver that he said, “Uh, Rita, you might remember that we can’t make free left turns in Washington. You can get a ticket for that.” I felt my bowels begin to turn hot with shame, the way they always did when I’d made a public mistake, but his voice was quiet and calm, and that was all Mr. Elwell ever said about that.

Maybe it was because of that time that I asked him to be my escort for the Homecoming assembly that fall. Or maybe it was because I didn’t really know any of the other male teachers at the high school yet, other than the world history teacher who didn’t like me because I questioned why we spent a whole period watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, or Mr. Carmignani, whose creative writing class I had dropped because he made it clear on the first day that if we didn’t share our inner selves in our writing and our writing out loud with the class, we would not be earning A’s or B’s. I would no more reveal my inner self to my peers than frolic naked down the halls, and a C was unacceptable, so that was that. No creative writing for me.

I needed a teacher escort for the assembly because I was the homecoming princess for my class. This was an uncomfortable honor for me. I had no date for the dance and was facing the humiliating prospect of the Pep Club girls arranging to have some boy ask me if no one came forward. I didn’t want to ask my parents for the money to buy a formal dress, because I knew that we didn’t have much of that kind of money, but I was told that I would have to get one. And, I needed a teacher to escort me down the aisle and up the steps to the stage during the big assembly, and I didn’t really know anyone for that, either.

So I asked Mr. Elwell, who seemed both mildly surprised and quietly pleased. At the morning assembly for underclassmen, I hooked my arm into Mr. Elwell’s and we made our way down the auditorium aisle without incident. It was the stairs to the stage that proved to be our downfall. As I stepped up to the first step, I failed to properly lift the hem of my long, formal, faux-pioneer girl Gunne Sax gown, bringing my shoe down on the inside of its skirt. I realized my mistake immediately, but I didn’t know what to do about it, what with my arm hooked into Mr. Elwell’s and everyone watching and me needing to get up those steps. So I just kept going. When I stepped up to the second step, I also stepped further up the hem of my dress. And I did the same with the fourth and fifth and sixth step, even though I knew I was only making things worse. By the time we got to the stage, Mr. Elwell and I were both bent nearly double, as he’d never let go of my arm, and I fell onto it, ears filling with the laughter of my fellow sophomores and those lowly freshmen. Mr. Elwell didn’t say anything; he simply helped me up, re-hooked our arms, and walked me across the stage with as much dignity as he had given me all those times in the driver ed car and in algebra class when I didn’t know the answer.

Years later I would come to see this as a seminal moment, a metaphor for so many things that went wrong in my life. I have had a confounding need to just keep moving doggedly forward, even when it is quite clear that stopping would be the best thing to do–the only thing to do if I did not want my trajectory to end in tragedy. It is has not served me well, nor has my propensity for sticking with others who don’t treat me with the same kind of respect I got from Mr. Elwell.

He was not a very good math teacher for me. I began this essay with the intention of writing about Algebra II, the last math class I ever took because I could no longer fake my way through math without the fundamentals I’d missed in Algebra I with Mr. Elwell. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that he was teaching me something probably more important than how to determine the value of x. He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it.

I like to think he’d be both mildly surprised and quietly pleased.

The poor guy I manipulated into asking me to the dance.

The poor guy I pressured into taking me to the dance.

*******

This piece came out of the last session of my writing class with Kate Carroll De Gutes (the one on writing about serious topics with humor). I almost didn’t attend; I’d had a terrible week, and I was feeling so tired and broken on Thursday night that I didn’t think any good would come of it. But as Leonard Cohen told us, the cracks are where the light comes in. The prompt was simply to write about taking algebra. Although I missed 2 of the 5 sessions, getting this essay out of the class was worth the price of admission. Kate is a teacher in the same gentle vein as Mr. Elwell. (Suck it, Mr. Carmignani.) I highly recommend her classes, which Portland-area folks can take at Attic Institute.

Bits and bobs

img_20161016_163817-1

Oh, hey there. Long time no see. Whatchya been up to?

Me? You know…busy busy busy these days…

busy-gif

I’ve only made it to half the sessions of my writing-about-hard-topics-with-humor class. Which means two. Yeah, that might not have been money so well spent after all, considering the per session cost. And that the response to my last piece was heavy on adjectives such as “hard,” “dark,” and “serious.” I believe the word “grim” might have been used. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be looking for places to let some light in.

Funny how a seemingly innocuous prompt–

“Two dollars doesn’t seem like much, unless…”

became a piece about income inequality and powerlessness and regret. (Except it wasn’t funny. At all.)

So, I guess I haven’t been busy going to my writing class. Or writing, with humor or anything else.

I think it’s because I’ve been really busy fighting all that’s wrong in the world on Facebook. (I know that sentence’s likely got a misplaced modifier, but it kinda works just the way it’s written.) Scrolling Facebook these days is like driving down a highway clogged with one horrific accident after another. I know that I should just look forward and keep moving (or stay home more–a lot more), but I can’t seem to stop myself from getting on the road and then fixating on the wreckage. I’m either staring in fascinated horror or actually stopping to try to do something–even though I have no useful skills to save anyone or anything and am really just adding to the carnage by getting in the way.

Unless, of course, I’m posting mindless things I think are funny, like this exchange between my son and me in the hours before the stormaggedon that never quite materialized here in the northwest last weekend.

Although sometimes I just post silly things like this exchange with my son.

Sometimes I get something positive out of my social media travels, though–like this piece by Magda Pescayne at AskMoxie–which helped me understand that what I’m feeling in response to this damn presidential election (and systemic racism and rape culture/misogyny and violence andandand…) is grief as much as anger and fear. (If you’re in the same place, take a minute to click on through. It’s got some great advice on how to get through the next few weeks. Not that I think everything is going to be all better when the election is finally over. In fact, I’m starting to fear that things will be worse.)

It’s not like I needed another thing to add to my List of Things I’m Grieving, but I guess there’s some comfort in recognizing that that’s what’s going on.

Speaking of grief, well…that’s the kind of thing that can just fill a person’s day right up, isn’t it? It takes so many minutes to talk yourself into getting out of bed, to wander aimlessly around the house from one unfinished task to another, to remember what it is you came for at the grocery store, to make and cancel the plans with friends you promised your therapist you’d reach out to, to make and cancel appointments with your therapist, to pick up take-out because grocery shopping used up all the energy you have, to fixate on the question of how one can distinguish between grief and depression and get online to Google it and get sidetracked by Facebook (which only exacerbates your grief/depression or whatever it is), to revise and revise and revise a blog post you’re never going to publish, to fight a series of migraines and other physical ailments, to put on a happy face so you won’t have to talk about any of the things that are making you sad/numb/angry/numb/hollow/numb.

But even though I’ve been so busy with those things, I have found time to pick up a needle again. I’ve decided that embroidery is my version of all those adult coloring books that are going to be on all the year-end lists of things that are this year’s equivalent of the pet rock.

A long while back I found a piece of fabric with finished edges that I bought because I wanted to embroider on it.

img_20161016_163749

Rather than embroider on it, though, I let it sit in various closets around our house. I think I didn’t let myself do anything with it because there is no practical reason for me to spend hours embellishing this piece of fabric. It won’t even serve any kind of decorative purpose, most likely, as the style and color scheme is unlike anything in the rest of our house.

But a weekend or so ago I picked it up because I was home alone and feeling really sick with migraine-med hangover and my grief/depression/whatever means I don’t have any house-related projects to do (because I no longer care much about doing things to make our house nicer) and because I just wanted to. I turned on an old movie and made a cup of tea and sat on the couch with the dogs and started “coloring.”

img_20161009_123317-1

This is not going to be an awesome work of original art. It may well end up spending more time in various closets when I’m done with it. But, when I am lying awake in bed and my mind is spinningspinningspinning about all the things that trouble me these days, I’ve started turning it to this canvas. I imagine what I might add to the tree’s white foliage. I wonder how I can make it look like the trunk has been yarn-bombed. I consider the kinds of stitches I might use to fill the leaves.

img_20161016_163857

Something about those middle-of-the-night wonderings calms my mind the way the actual work of it does in earlier hours of the day, and I’m usually able to get back to sleep.

That’s a good thing, I guess. At the very least, it keeps me from becoming another wreck for others to rubberneck at on their journey through this world.

So, yeah. That’s what’s new with me. How about you?

img_20161009_125411-1

I almost forgot. It’s puzzle season again.